Technicians are a vital component of UK higher education

Kelly Vere explains the important role of a new national policy commission into the UK’s higher education technical workforce.

Kelly Vere is Director of Technical Skills and Strategy at the University of Nottingham and Higher Education and Technician Commitment Lead at the Science Council.

Technical expertise is critical to the success of UK research, innovation and higher education – and in turn vital to the growth of the UK economy.

Technical colleagues across our sector underpin the primary activities of universities and research institutes – providing the technical excellence to underpin research, teaching, knowledge exchange and innovation. Many technicians are researchers and teachers in their own right, teaching and training students at every level.

There are estimated to be in the region of 30-50,000 technicians working across higher education and research. This technical community has a vast range of job titles – including technicians, skills specialists, research technology professionals, technologists, experimental officers, laboratory managers and more.

Despite their vital role, the technical community has frequently been described as an “invisible workforce”, and is a relatively understudied occupational group in higher education and research, both here in the UK and globally. As a consequence, the UK higher education and research sector lacks an effective understanding of the technical workforce – roles are ill-defined, and little is known about future technical skills requirements.

Shiny shiny, bad times behind me

Often in our sector we talk about emerging technologies and the “shiny kit” we need to drive innovation – but rarely do we consider the people – the expert technical skills, roles and careers required to enable the use of these technologies.

It is crucial that we consider the technical capability required to fulfil the government’s ambition to increase investment in R&D. The UK can only be a science superpower if we effectively understand and then invest in the technical talent, expertise and know-how to meet this ambition.

Since its launch in 2017, the sector’s Technician Commitment has generated significant momentum and galvanised activity to ensure increased visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability of technical skills, roles and careers across the 90+ signatory institutions.

Universities and research institutes have published plans to meet the Technician Commitment’s core aims and institutional activity is beginning to show evidence of positive change. The initiative has actively encouraged and supported collaborative activity and regional consortiums and networks have taken the opportunity to work together to advance the culture for the technical community.

This is fantastic progress, but there is still much to do. Nationally, we have a lack of strategic insight into the technical capabilities of our sector and there is a paucity of literature, data and knowledge of the technical community who enable research and teaching across UK higher education and research.

A new research programme, TALENT, funded by Research England and partners, and awarded to the Midlands Innovation consortium of universities, is leading and influencing change to advance status and opportunity for the technical community in higher education and research.

Commission check

To address the gap in our sector understanding of the technical community, TALENT has launched a national policy commission, chaired by Professor Sir John Holman, to generate new knowledge and insights into the UK’s technical workforce.

Convened in 2020, the Commission includes technician representatives, along with Vice-Chancellors and representatives from learned societies and funding bodies. The Commission is addressing questions centred around five key themes: Population; Practice; Perception & Representation; Policy & Partnerships and Pathways & Professional Development.

Amongst many topics, we’re looking at how technicians are funded in UK higher education and research, exploring their role in knowledge exchange, examining career pathways and progression routes, and crucially, looking at the future skills and training needs of this community to enable the realisation of the government’s future ambitions for UK research and innovation.

We’re generating this evidence through a range of methods. We’ve conducted the largest ever national survey of technical staff in UK higher education and research, we’re analysing sector data and we’re hosting focus groups, interviews and round table discussions with a range of stakeholders.

Alongside this we have launched a Call for Evidence to which we invite colleagues from all roles and disciplines to contribute. This closes at the end of May and we urge individuals and organisations to participate to help us build collective understanding of this crucial community.

The Commission’s report is currently scheduled to launch at the House of Lords in November 2021 (Covid-19 permitting!). We are sharing early insights with the team developing the government’s upcoming Research and Development People and Culture Strategy, reflecting the need to ensure that all roles in the research and innovation ecosystem are recognised.

We look forward to sharing our learning with the wider sector and to working collaboratively to ensure that the UK has the technical capability and capacity to deliver the best outcomes for research, innovation and education. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the power of the UK’s research base and the importance of maintaining and strengthening it for the future. Technical skills must be at the heart of that ambition.

One response to “Technicians are a vital component of UK higher education

  1. Technical staff are a key part of many students university experience, often it’s a technician they turn to for help rather than their academic supervisor and many technicians carry the mental scars that supporting vulnerable students inflicts.

    But lets get down to the nitty gritty, technicians are undervalued by many in the university sector, whilst academics who rely on them may value them many in the administrative structure don’t. In the case of my university the then head of HR through Machiavellian manoeuvring managed to get HAY as our job matching system, which is biased in favour for admin roles and against technical roles, unlike HERA which seems to be more even handed, promotion is often limited to ‘filling dead men’s (or retired) shoes’.

    And whilst technical staff are also undervalued by wider society, being seen as ‘blue collar’ with ‘dirty hands’ by many, we can but hope that may change and we in the UK become more like Germany where technical staff are treated very differently. Failure to change our culture however will see many young people continuing to avoid technical careers leading to an even greater shortfall of technical staff as older technicians retire. Though for many in senior management roles that facet can’t come soon enough as technicians are often the holders of the ‘corporate memory’ as unlike academics they are less likely/able to move between different universities during their working lives, and more likely as they age to speak the truth…

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